First Principles

In search of the Unified Theory of Conservatism

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About First Principles

October 15th, 2007 · No Comments

So just what is (or what should be) a “real” Conservative?

con·ser·va·tism n.

  1. The inclination, especially in politics, to maintain the existing or traditional order.
  2. A political philosophy or attitude emphasizing respect for traditional institutions, distrust of government activism, and opposition to sudden change in the established order.”

– The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

“Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification). … The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.”

Jost, J., et al. (2003), Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 129, No. 3, 339–375

“We believe conservatism to be the most natural political tendency, rooted in man’s taste for the familiar, for family, for faith in God. We believe that true conservatism has a predisposition for the institutions and mores that exist. So much of what passes for contemporary conservatism is wedded to a kind of radicalism—fantasies of global hegemony, the hubristic notion of America as a universal nation for all the world’s peoples, a hyperglobal economy.”

Scott McConnell, co-founder of The American Conservative (with Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos).

“How many times have solidly liberal Democrats described themselves as ‘fiscally conservative?’ Those formulations accept that true conservatives are principled people with noble goals. They are not, and should not be talked about as though they were. … Conservatism is everyone you never wanted to grow up to be.”

Paul Waldman, senior fellow at Media Matters for America

“Traditional conservatism was based on six principles: a suspicion of the power of the state; a preference for liberty over equality; unashamed patriotism; a belief in established institutions and hierarchies; a pessimistic, backward-looking pragmatism; and elitism. This was the creed that Burke shaped into a philosophy in the 18th century–and that most famous conservatives, from Prince Metternich to Winston Churchill, understood in their bones. [Ronald] Reagan’s conservatism exaggerated the first three of Burke’s principles and contradicted the last three.”

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, “Reaganism”, The Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2004

“As of this millennium, [Conservatism is] nothing but a hate movement with neckties. Protofascism with bright, patriotic logos.”

Daily Kos diarist “Hunter”

What conservatism actually is has probably been debated as long as the term has existed – at least since right-of-center politicians have tried to convince voters of their unique authenticity, anyway. It’s a lot easier to find websites and books that say what conservatism isn’t. When they take a more positive spin, once broken down it’s often nothing more than a rough list of individual issues loosely bound together with a convenient political label to be used as a handle or a bludgeon, depending on the wielder. Maybe any movement that is so large that it can be said to encompass roughly half of the voting American public will forever defy definition.

But I’m going to try anyway. And that’s what this blog is all about.

I want to know what the underlying principles of American Conservatism are, and what they should be. But it needs to be more than a list of Republican platform issues – proposals for bills are (we hope) the result of principles, not the principles themselves. Why are certain issues conservative, while others make you a RINO? What exactly are we “conserving”? Why is abortion a conservative issue? Why is fighting murderous terrorists conservative? Why is 2nd Amendment advocacy conservative? Why is federalism conservative? I do know that none of the quotes above are satisfying as a definition, at least not to me.

And who is the quintessential Conservative-All-Real-Conservatives-Should-Emulate? President Bush (either of them)? Ronald Reagan? Clarence Thomas? Rudy Giuliani? John McCain? Ron Paul? Jesus Christ? Adolf Hitler?

If free markets are conservative, then how can Pat Buchanan claim that free trade is not? If we distrust the government, why does John Yoo favor a more powerful and less accountable executive? If we are all about state rights, how do we support No Child Left Behind? If we believe in the primacy of individual liberty, how can we argue against gay marriage? If we hate hippies who engage in vandalism and anarchy “civil disobedience,” how do we justify the Boston Tea Party? If we are pro-life, why do we not oppose the death penalty? Consistency in philosophy and practice are important, and tracing the underlying principles of that philosophy is critical in attempting to reach that consistency. And best of all, once identified, those principles become an invaluable guidebook for navigating difficult political choices we all face every election day.

I’ve been developing my generally conservative political philosophy since before I was aware I was a conservative. (One of my first clues came when I asked a classmate in all seriousness about joining our high school’s new Young Democrats club, and was told to “stay the hell away!” – she thought I was kidding.) But I want to further refine it, and create a cogent set of First Principles that can inform my personal political decision making process (and maybe a few other people as well).

And there’s no better way to do that than to put those ideas out of scrutiny and debate. Indeed, the very heart of discovering the truth of any principle – political, scientific, or otherwise – is to attack it mercilessly, comprehensively, and continually, all with an eye towards disproving the idea. (Just don’t tell Al Gore.) If at the end of the day the idea still stands, then there it is (until something more correct and hardy comes along). If not, it’s time to rethink things. If what conservatives are attempting to conserve is actually worth conserving, this process will let us know.

It won’t always be Deep and Serious. Watching and commenting on political horse races isn’t the only way to think about and refine these ideas – I don’t even think it’s the best way. Pop culture, movies, random life happenings – all those are ways to explore any philosophical truth that wishes to withstand the test of time, not to mention actually be useful to a self-governing society. (That, and sometimes I just want to comment about something random, and since my name’s on the URL, I can do that…)

And at the end of it all (if there is one), I hope to have a Unified Theory of Conservatism – a set of First Principles that coherently fit together and help explain each other. Principles which can be consulted when determining what course to advocate for our selves, our families, our country, and even the wider world.

It’ll take some time, but it’s going to be fun. And I want to thank in advance everyone who will read, comment, debate, think, urge, attack, and in all other ways become the forge which strengthens, tempers, and improves my good ideas and melts the wrong, weak, and inconsistent ones away. Enjoy.

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